This equine-assisted program teaches riding and social skills to kids with disabilities.
Ivy walked lazily around the inside of a barn. She followed her handler who was leading the class in stretches. Nathan Wion, perched on Ivy's back, peered out from behind his glasses at his mom, Megan Wion, who sat on the first row of metal bleachers.
Wion looked up at her son and waved. Nathan waved back, then turned his whole upper body from right to left as Ivy took a gentle left turn.
Nathan had to turn his whole body to see her waving because he can't see out of his right eye, Wion explained. Turning just his head puts too much stress on his neck.
The 22-year-old mare is one of 13 horses at the Equi-Valent Riding Center in Delaware. Soft-spoken Nathan, 11, was one of four students during that day's installment of Barn Buddies, an equine-assisted program that teaches riding and social skills to kids with disabilities.
Barn Buddies began in 2010 with only four children, most of them on the autism spectrum. In only three years, the program has grown so quickly, it now has a waiting list.
"We're serving probably about 50 kids a week now," said Heather Cotterman, one of the program's founders. "It's grown very fast."
Nathan has a genetic eye disease called Familial Exudative Vitreoretinopathy. He lost vision in his right eye after a vitrectomy removed the lens and replaced the gelatin-like fluid inside. Nathan also has Expressive Language Disorder, a speech disorder that makes it difficult for him to express his needs and wants. But Barn Buddies has taught him more than just how to ride a horse.
"Confidence would be the main thing," said Wion, a mother of five boys. "This is all Nathan's. Ever since we've gotten into horses, his (Individual Education Plan) is directed toward horses."
In addition to the academic benefits, the program improves a rider's balance, coordination and core strength through stretches, games and the natural movements of riding.
Each lesson starts with a light stretch. While riding their horses, students raise their arms up high, lean forward to touch the horses' heads, then lean back to reach the tails. Instructors stress posture and proper riding position, which has helped Nathan's airflow and improved his speech.
The games are designed to give riders the ability to control their horses. One game was set up with four cones and hoops laid flat on the ground inside.
"It's like a bridge," Nathan said later. "You have to stay in the cones. If the (horse's) hoof gets inside the hoop, you have to go to the dungeon."
An extra hoop was added that day, bringing the hoops total to five. As Nathan maneuvered Ivy through the course, her hoof landed in one of the hoops, and the pair was promptly escorted to the corner of the barn known as "the dungeon."
Riders have to communicate with a friend - another student in the class - to be set free from the plastic-fence prison. Like a game of equine freeze tag, the second rider strolls into the dungeon and releases the captive comrade.
Currently, Barn Buddies serves kids ages 4 to 14. Cotterman said she wants to expand and give students older than 14 the ability to volunteer around the barn and stables. Based on the improvements Nathan has shown, his mother said she thinks that horses will become more than just a volunteer opportunity for him when he gets older.
"He's more easy-going with his brothers," Wion said. "Odd behaviors and ticking have calmed. I think it will probably decide his career, honestly."